Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

How do we imagine this scene, how do we picture it to ourselves?
Artists have been doing this for centuries of course. The Annunciation is one of the most widely depicted scenes in art, particularly in the Renaissance period. Mary is usually shown in an interior space, often a rather elegant room, perhaps with William Morris wall hangings and tasteful objets on the shelf and a potted plant on the window sill. She is usually seated, or kneeling in prayer, often holding a book, and in some paintings we can see what she is reading, the verse from Isaiah that says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”.
And into this scene comes the angel bursting with the heavenly message. The angel is all movement, urgency and flurrying wings, while Mary is shown still, quiet, and receptive.
But is that how it was? On one level, yes, because these paintings are symbolic. The interior space in which Mary is shown represents her own inner self, her contemplative attention to God’s word. The scene reminds us of the advice of Jesus on how to pray: go into your inner room and close the door, the inner room being our heart.
But these paintings are not historical. Western artists for many centuries had no access to the holy land, and painted the Holy Places in the guise of their own towns and streets. And that too has a symbolic meaning, for the incarnation is in and for this world, all of it, all places and times.
So, let us go back to Luke’s account of the Annunciation. What does he have to tell us about where Mary was and what she was doing, when the Angel came to her?
And the answer is, nothing. This is a bit of a surprise as just before in his Gospel Luke tells us about the angel visiting Zechariah to tell him that he would be the father of John the Baptist, and that scene is full of detail. But not the Annunciation to Mary. The angel’s message itself, and Mary’s response, are what we need to know.
We can however reimagine the scene of the Annunciation, if we go to Nazareth, where it happened.  At Nazareth there are two places, not just one, which are revered as sites connected with the Annunciation. And they are credible places, they would have been known to the first Christians and the knowledge passed down the generations.
The first site is a well, which today is in the crypt of a Greek Orthodox Church, but in the first Century it was in the open air, the only source of water for the people of the town. Here every day the women would come to fetch water. This was regarded as women’s work at the time, and was one of the first chores of the day. So we can be quite sure that Mary did come to this well. And the local tradition is that Mary was at the well drawing water when the angel appeared and greeted her: “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Luke tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The local tradition is that she pondered this for some time, because the angel disappeared at that point, and Mary carried her water back home and went about the rest of the day’s tasks, all the while pondering, pondering.
The second site is a cave, now beneath the massive modern basilica of the Annunciation, but in the first century it was the cellar of a local home, like many others. The country is made of soft limestone and ordinary people’s homes consisted of one room above ground, and a rock cut cave beneath, where the stores were kept, the animals were kept at night, and the people slept in winter for the warmth.
The local tradition is that Mary was in this cave when the angel appeared to her again and completed his message, “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Now this way of telling the story, in two places, makes sense of Luke’s narrative, and allows time for the “pondering” that Luke says Mary did between the two parts of the angel’s message. And of course it would have been in this cave that Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The tradition of the Church is that it was in that moment, as soon as Mary had given her consent, that she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God became incarnate in her womb.
That cave was not a living room or a place where you would spend any time during the day. It was the cellar of the family home, where the grain and oil and food were kept. So what was Mary doing there? Well perhaps she had come down to fetch some ingredients, to prepare the family meal.
These two sites, the well and the food store, give us a different setting for the Annunciation. The angel comes to Mary as she is busy about her daily tasks, doing the chores, carrying water, fetching stuff from the cellar.
Outwardly this is different from the still, contemplative, interior space depicted by the artists. But inwardly there is no contradiction. Mary was busy about her daily tasks, yes. But at the same time she was attentive, recollected, her heart open to God, focused on his presence even as she went about her daily round.
It was in the middle of an ordinary day, amid the busyness of its ordinary tasks, that the angel came. Mary was not dismayed by the immensity of his message: God, the uncreated, the unconditioned, was emptying himself, touching history, entering creation, becoming a weak and vulnerable human being, there and then. Mary, entirely present in that moment, attentive with her whole being to the will of God, was able to say Yes in complete simplicity. And surely this is because she was already entirely attentive to God in the ordinary moment of the ordinary day. Because of that God was able to work his will for her and for us.
God is present, too, for us, in every moment of every day. His promises are sure, his mercy from age to age the same. The great Jesuit spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade talked about the “sacrament of the present moment”: God is entirely present in each moment as it presents itself to us, and that is where we are to be attentive to his will, which is our peace. Not tomorrow, not somewhere else. Not in an ideal world where stuff doesn’t happen, but here and now.
This is the meaning of Christmas – and Advent. God comes to the world as it is. The Word becomes flesh in the ordinary day of Nazareth. Nine months later he is born in the upheaval and chaos of Bethlehem, where a whole population had been forcibly relocated for a stupid bureaucratic exercise. God right there, amid everything that was going on.
And God right here, amid everything that is going on. The only place where we can seek God is this present moment where we actually are, with whatever it brings. It is futile to wish that we were somewhere else, the place perhaps where the washing machine has not broken down, or we do know how to make ends meet, or the person we love is not seriously ill. God is in the real, not the imaginary. He is in the present moment. Because whatever particular form it takes God’s will is always salvation and life and love for all the world. Heaven in earth is the meaning of the Incarnation. And that is not just for Christmas, but in every moment, with whatever it brings, here and now.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2014

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8,19-28

Our gospel reading this morning is edited highlights. If you look at the verse numbering you’ll see that two separate bits of John Chapter 1 have been lifted out and put together. This is so that we have John the Evangelist’s account of John the Baptist as a continuous story. But in fact the way the Evangelist tells it, the Baptist’s story is framed by a bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, the true light that enlightens everyone. John the Baptist is as it were a sub-plot in the big story of who Jesus is. When you get home, look up John chapter 1 in your own Bibles and you can see how it all fits together.
But today we are looking at John the Baptist, and who he is. Or, more to the point, who he is not. “He himself was not the light”, says the Evangelist, “but he came to testify to the light.” The Baptist himself adds to this, by telling the people who question him that he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet.
Knowing who you are not is a great gift, and it is something that the priests and Levites who question John don’t understand. Human beings are mimics. We imitate what we see, driven by a subconscious desire to be the models that are presented to us. Who we are is a question that haunts us. How can I know who or what I am? How can I be sure that there is really anything here at all? The ready made model seems an easy solution, here, this is what you are, be like this. But can it really answer the question of our existence and identity? Does it tell us the truth?
Think of the kind of models that are available for us. We’re bombarded with them: celebrities, footballer, film stars, high flying career people, people with power and influence, the rich and famous. The subtle message all the time is, “Be like this! If you don’t who are you? Can you be sure you even really exist?”
Now this is powerful and pervasive, and it is very human. But it is also an illusion. Our identity is a mystery and a gift that we receive from God. We can’t construct it ourselves or copy it from a model. And John the Baptist has seen through this illusion.
The models that the priests and Levites hold out to him are compelling ones indeed. Are you the Messiah? The Messiah, God’s chosen anointed one who will lead his people and drive away oppression. Are you Elijah? The fire-brand prophet who brought down kings and rulers and was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind. Are you the Prophet? Not just any prophet but a specific figure, a prophet “like Moses”, greater than all others, who it was believed would appear in the last days.
John the Baptist knows that he is not these people, he is not the models held out for him to imitate. Instead, he says, he is but a “voice crying out in the wilderness”. Just a voice – something that passes away and is gone. And in the wilderness – outside the structures of society, far from the centre.  John can say this because his faith is in the one who is to come, the one whose story frames his own.
For John, the question of his identity can only be answered in the context of that bigger story: the story of the Word, who is God, through whom all things exist, who is coming in to the world. John knows that his own existence and identity is not something he can construct. Instead, it is a gift to be received, and a mystery to be held, in the greater gift and mystery of the Word who calls all things into being.
So for John there is no terrible existential angst. He is not troubled by the question, “who are you”. He is there to point to Jesus, the Word made flesh, who creates us and holds us in being through his own sheer generosity and love. Who am I? Why are you concerning yourself with me? It’s Jesus who matters.
This is I think a very important lesson, not only for us as individuals but also for the Church of today. It seems to me that the Church in the West has developed a huge existential anxiety as society has become more secular, more open and fluid and questioning, and its own place has shifted away from the centre.
What is the church for? Who are we? The Church can seem to be obsessed with these questions. The answer used to seem clear, in the days when the Church could assume privilege and influence. But those days are gone. And if we act as though they are not, we just come across as pompous and out of touch.
When, for example, the Church of England insists on being exempt from equality laws, so that women and gay people can still be discriminated against, then we should not be surprised if the world around us finds that incomprehensible and stops listening. And that is a real tragedy, because from time to time the Church says something that really matters, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments last week on his shock at the scale of hunger in the UK.
But instead the Church just seems to get more concerned about its market profile and brand image, the models around us that cry out to be imitated. “Fresh expressions” spring up in place of traditional churches and liturgies, as though we have lost faith in the one thing that Jesus told us to do, which is to celebrate Mass. Last week saw a proposal that high flyers in the Church should be “groomed” for a “talent pool” and sent on intensive training so they can be the future bishops and archdeacons and so on, as though the Church were a multinational corporation.
Now the Church does need competent management in the right places. But we also need the prophets and the sages, those who stir up the complacent and scandalise the respectable and overturn the tables of the moneychangers. In a “business model church”, where will be those whose deep wisdom has been forged in the desert, far from the centre, who don’t fit in with the prevailing models, and whom we desperately need to hear because we do fit in and we shouldn’t?
As with individual disciples, so with the Church.  If we try to construct our identity by imitating the models around us we will fail. Our task is not to be concerned about who we are. Our task is to remember the bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, in which story alone the Church exists and makes sense.
The existential crisis in the Church will only be solved when we stop worrying about ourselves and start pointing to Jesus once again. Because it is fundamentally a crisis of faith. How are we going to convey the good news that we created and loved by God, if we act as though we don’t believe that ourselves?
So, who are we, then? How does John the Baptist answer that? He is a voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
The South American liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo once said that the normal condition of the church is that of a creative minority within society, the little bit of yeast that leavens the whole dough. That seems the right approach in our generation. The disciples of Jesus, then and now, are called to be a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The Church needs to be small and humble before the world, but faithful, a poor Church for the poor, if it is to fulfil this role. Jesus began with twelve people – and they weren’t high flyers selected from a talent pool.

If the Church will not hear the call of the wilderness, then it will find itself in the wilderness anyway, but a wilderness of judgement and purification. As God’s people have often found in the past. God judges his Church because he loves his Church. And sometimes only the wilderness experience can strip us of our illusions and self-reliance and bring us back to faith in the one who alone loves us and creates us, on whom we must learn to depend entirely, once again.  

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 2 2014

Part of the "Priene Calendar Inscription", claiming that "the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [evangelion] for the world that came by reason of him". 

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Good news! Well, the Chancellor, I expect, was hoping that his autumn budget statement would be greeted with headlines announcing that the measures he has introduced were “good news” for various sectors of society. Of course, not everyone agreed with him about whether it really was “good news”, but that’s politics, and “good news” headlines help to maintain your support base.
It was much the same in the Roman world, and “good news” was a word that was well known at the time of Jesus. “Evangelion”, in Greek, or “Gospel” in English. Announcements from the Roman Emperor were usually headed “good news”. Caesar has built you a new aqueduct! Caesar has quelled the rebellious tribes threatening your borders! Good news! Well, good news unless you were one of those rebellious tribes, or a slave who had to do the aqueduct building.
So when Mark’s account of the life of Jesus opens with that word, and announces “the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, we know that Mark is proclaiming an alternative to the “good news” of Caesar. And at the same time he gave us the word we now use for the accounts of the life of Jesus, “gospel”.
There is a lot going on in the reading we heard this morning. Mark is the shortest of the gospels but he packs a lot in. So good news for the year of Mark – shorter gospel readings! But not necessarily shorter sermons…
Mark opens his gospel with, “the beginning”. In the Greek in which Mark wrote, this is “Genesis”. So straight away we are reminded of the creation stories in the Old Testament. Mark is announcing that this is a new creation story.
Then we have some more Old Testament. Mark says,
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”
Now actually only the last part of that is from Isaiah. This is a composite quotation, and the first part is from two different places. “I will send my messenger before you who will prepare your way” – that’s from the Prophet Malachi[1], and it is about God visiting his temple and sending his messenger before him – for judgement, because the temple had become corrupt. And here we look forward to Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the money changers on Palm Sunday. The Temple should have been a house of prayer for all nations, a place that nurtured the people, but instead it had become oppressive and corrupt.
This is a particular theme of Mark – the temple had gone wrong. It was keeping the Jerusalem elite in power and draining the livelihood of the poor in the taxes that had to be paid to keep the enormous number of sacrifices going. It sucked in huge stores of grain and oil and money but didn’t distribute them to those in need, keeping it instead for the profit of the few.
But that quotation from Malachi is also very similar to something said in Exodus[2], about God sending his angel – “angel” means “messenger” – ahead of the children of Israel as they leave behind the slavery of Egypt to journey to the promised land. So Mark is also saying, here is a new Exodus story. God is leading his people to freedom and sending his messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare the way.
And this is all the background to the voice from Isaiah crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist, who proclaims repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
So here in just the first three verses of Mark we have four clear Old Testament references, and the announcement that the Good News of Jesus is a radical alternative to the prevailing power structures of the world, whether they be the Roman Empire or the Jerusalem elite.
Where is God acting? In the wilderness. Far away from the centres of power, on the margins of society, God has raised up a prophet to proclaim repentance.
Repentance means turning around, taking a new direction. Humanity has been heading in the wrong direction, going its own way, the way of violence and sin, the way of exalting myself over against other people. But God calls us to his way, the way of the Lord that his messenger prepares, which is the way of love and justice and peace.
This is the way of freedom. But it is also the way of the wilderness. As it was in the exodus from Egypt, so it was for John the Baptist. The way of the Lord leads us away from the centres of human power to the edge, to the margins, where power and privilege and wealth are stripped away and there is nothing to sustain us but the Lord himself.
Repentance is the key to entering the way of the Lord, the way of freedom. We need to repent, to change direction, because we have been going our own way and not the Lord’s way. We need to repent because we have been centred on ourselves, on our demands and desires, and not centred on God who alone can satisfy our truest and deepest desire. Repentance opens us to God’s gift, the forgiveness of sins and new life.
This is at the heart of the gospel message. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, turn around, and align yourself with the direction of the Kingdom, which is not a static state but the journey to freedom. It is the way of love that leads us away from the way of violence by which humanity has been living up to now.
Repentance is at the heart of the Church as well. The Church is the people of God, following in his way, so we are the people who repent. It is well said that the Church is not the community of good people, but the community of forgiven people. But it is God who makes us good by forgiving us our sins so that we can follow in his way.
We think of repentance at particular times and seasons. Advent and Lent are the “penitential” seasons, the repenting seasons, as in each we hear with particular emphasis the call to turn back to the Lord and be forgiven.
Our baptism too marks us with the sign of repentance, for life, commits us to follow in the way of continual turning towards the Lord. And the sacrament of reconciliation, confession, is a particular way in which we can return to the path of repentance after our baptism and be assured of God’s forgiveness.
But repentance marks us every day. We know that we fail and sin again and again, but the Lord always calls us back to himself. His mercy is renewed every time we sin.
So repentance should be part of our daily life as Christians. Study of the scriptures brings about repentance in our minds, as our illusions are stripped away and we hear again God’s call on our lives. But prayer roots repentance in the heart. It is prayer that redirects our whole being towards God. And as the mind and the heart work together the sacraments give us strength to follow in the way, along which the Lord calls us to freedom.

[1] Malachi 3:1
[2] Exodus 14:19

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 1 2014

Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1. 3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of Black Friday until last week. This strange discount day, connected with an American holiday that we don’t have over here, led to scenes of frenzied consumption, and pictures in the papers of people fighting over televisions. This is part of the apparent dominance of consumer culture around the world. A culture that wants us to believe that this is the way the world is. Desire more stuff, get more stuff! But is that really what life is about?

On Monday I was at a lecture by Lord Green, former Chair of HSBC and also a priest, on leadership and culture. It was a thought provoking lecture but I was struck by his unchallenged assumption that there is something called “the market” that has an objective existence of its own and determines what things are worth and where trade goes and who it benefits. But is there really such a thing as “the market”?

In Britain politicians of all parties seem to be getting very anxious about immigration, in response to a kind of resurgent British nationalism which seems to see the ills of our society as originating anywhere but here. Fear seems to be the name of the game in politics at the moment. But what should we really be afraid of?

In all these things, and other areas of life, it’s good to ask, is that really the way the world is? The world wants us to believe that this is how things are, but is it true? Or is there something else going on behind the scenes?

Today we begin reading through Mark and as it is Advent we begin near the end in what has been called Mark’s Apocalypse. Apocalypse means “unveiling”, showing what is really going on behind the scenes.

Mark is the earliest Gospel to be written and part of its message is to challenge the way the world understands itself, and present an alternative, which is the Kingdom of God.

Mark reflects a period of great political tension and threat. On the one hand there was the Roman Empire, the global superpower and dominant culture of its day, which held power in Judea and all round the Mediterranean world. On the other hand was a militant Jewish nationalism that wanted to throw off Roman rule. Rebellion in the year 66 led to Roman reaction and brutal repression, culminating in the total destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

These two competing worldviews could see nothing but themselves and the other, in opposition. But the gospel challenges both worldviews, and proclaims an alternative, the Kingdom of God.

It’s clear from the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels that he foresaw the destructive collision of the Roman Empire and Jewish nationalism. He saw the direction in which his society was heading, and warned of its consequences. And this is what he has been talking about just before the story is taken up in today’s Gospel reading. This is what is meant by “in those days, after that suffering”.

After that suffering, what? Well Jesus goes on to talk about the “coming of the Son of Man”. That is to say, the appearing of Christ in his glory, and the fulfilment of his reign. He is talking about the Kingdom of God becoming the reality by which the world lives. When will that happen?

That must have been a question of great importance to the followers of Jesus who had lived through the terrible last days of Judea and Jerusalem. Just as it has been to people down the ages when great disasters and wars have devastated their world. When will this end? When will the just and peaceful reign of God appear?

But instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus warns the disciples that in fact this is not something that can be pinned down with a day or a time. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Instead, he answers with a parable.

All of which reinforces Jesus’ point that we do not know when the Kingdom is happening. Which is also to say that we don’t control it. He doesn’t tell us that we will know, he does not instruct us to find out. He simply says, you don’t know. It’s God’s doing. Our part is not to know, but to stay alert, to be watchful. To be attentive, so that we can see.

Being attentive means being ready to question the worldviews that compete for our allegiance. Whether that be Rome and Judea, in the days of Jesus; or in our own day consumerism, “the market” and nationalism.

If our minds are trained to be attentive to the Kingdom of God, then we will be alert to what is false in the way the world interprets itself.

And we need to be alert, because the way the world wants things to be is about domination and control. It is about defining the “insiders” by casting out and excluding the “outsiders”.

Just after Jesus gave this teaching about the Kingdom, he himself fell victim to just such an attempt to control human destiny. In his betrayal and death he assumed the place of the outsider. He became the victim of those who thought they knew what the world was about and could impose its values by force.

But the words of Jesus hover over the scene of his passion and death: “Keep awake!”. Be attentive. Look. It is in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus that the Kingdom is happening. It is in the death of the innocent victim, and his being raised to the glory of the Father, that God is acting to put right what is wrong. Like the master returning when no-one would expect, the Kingdom is happening in the last place you would think of looking.

This is not, of course, what the world expects or wants. The Kingdom of God is happening amid betrayal and loss and death. The Kingdom is happening where human beings lose control and become victims. It is happening among the dispossessed, for they are the ones who have seen through the illusions of the world.

The coming year will see a general election, amid what seems to be a general escalation of fear. Politicians are giving assurances about what they think people are afraid of, and making promises about what they think people desire. It is good that Christians will be reading Mark’s Gospel this year, for it is the Gospel of the dispossessed, the Gospel that consistently challenges our fears and desires, the assumptions that the world makes about what is important and what is right.

We do not know the day or the hour of the Kingdom. But in this day and hour Jesus calls us keep awake, to be attentive, for the Kingdom of God is very near.